Social’s Time to Shine with Ebola Surveillance.

Photo Courtesy of Tommy Trenchard

Photo Courtesy of Tommy Trenchard

Why Social Media Will Be Critical for Ebola Surveillance.

The Ebola virus disease is real. As of October 14, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost over 4,500 citizens to the virus and the mortality rate continues to multiply. Outside west Africa, America and Spain strengthen their preparedness in light of serious errors in standard operating procedures. The European Union heightens their preparations with possible new cases arising in France and Spain respectively.

There is no doubt; Ebola is a very serious medical event needing responsible story telling. Media have (a degree of) accountability to ethically inform the public with balanced and culpable reporting.

In which universe?

As before and always, broadcast and print deafen our senses hourly within a framework of fear and apprehension. For many, this seems like déjà vu. Media professed countless stories of doom and gloom in 2001 and 2003 (H5N1), 2002 (SARS) and 2009 (H1N1) viral outbreaks. Each of these influenza pandemics were wrapped with the same predictable means of anxiety and fear.

Let’s face it, news-gathering is driven by advertising revenues and ‘if it bleed it leads.’ We get that.

But what about the new (media) kid on the block?

Is social media merely a ‘media vector’ glad-handing news reports on Twitter et al? Is it not the time for social to stand apart from traditional media and provide a new purpose when telling the pandemic story? The public deserve more stories detailing how the world is managing the issue. Not countless minutes of video loops and talking heads proclaiming why no one is doing anything and how much money is being spent.

The time is now for social to take centre stage by telling the story everyone really wants to hear – surveillance.

After all, social media is the public’s media!

Top reasons why social will help control Ebola

Events Based Surveillance

Bioterrorism remains the number one issue for event-based surveillance (EBS) within the American and European governments. Recently billions has been poured into biodefense in something called a Biosurveillance Ecosystem.  An American early warning detection system wired to analyze and track bioterrorism in the U.S.. Something newly minted Ebola czar @RonaldKlain will tap into, right?

In the 2012 Olympic Games the U.K. implemented an EBS to great success and is now a standard in EBS technology and benchmark code for future algorithms. Considering public participation is imperative with good EBS data, let’s hear some these stories!

As with past pandemics, online giants as Google provided search tools as Google’s flu trends which mapped out influenza hot spots for early warning. Yes, Google was leery on giving away flu search terms as to ward off hackers, but clearly Rihanna or other celebrities have learned and will not claim flu-like indices on their Twitter handles regarding Ebola, right?


The world’s largest ‘micro-blogging’ platform now rings in half a billion tweets a day. Plus, as of March of this year, mobile apps have overtaken PC internet usage. This gives Twitter a huge capacity to broadcast from literally, anywhere. Equally, at 140 characters, the communication is more succinct and offers phraseology conducive to behaviour tracking. Past influenzas has underscored the importance of developing algorithms to parse off the Twitter slang and offer accurate data outside of Google search terms.

Twitter also offers Geo-tagging (GPS tagged tweets) relaying real-time metadata. Gone are the days of helicopters following white Broncos, now we can accurately plot a virus’ virulent path by tracking photos from mobile devices.

Crowd Sourcing

Invaluable towards the tracking and eventual capture of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects; crowd sourcing is growing as a premier surveillance tool. Groups as rely on public data to help track STDs, influenza, tuberculosis amongst other maladies. This beta site is funded by Salathé Group, CIDD, Penn State University and Health Map and is actively positioned for social integration.

People Have the Power

Social will help the world react to Ebola in a positive and proactive manner. Not by proliferating fear through misinformed tweets, but by uniting together with their devices as one true mechanism to track, analyze and ultimately beat this horrible and devastating disease.

Patty Smith sang it best, “People have the power!”

Footnote: This blog entry supports all the dedicated and selfless work rendered by the hundreds of medical workers in west Africa and around the world. In death there will be triumph and on behalf of all patients suffering from Ebola, thank you.

John K. Bromley